Matthew Herbert – Recomposed: Mahler Symphony X

Originally published by The Silent Ballet


Amongst classical composers, a somewhat superstitious bunch, there is something known as (cue dramatic music) THE CURSE OF THE NINTH. Many great composers have died after completing their ninth symphony but before completing their tenth, therefore leading to the suspicion that there is something about that ninth Symphony that makes it impossible to follow up. (Of course, there are plenty of counter examples, but good superstitions die hard.) For many of the greats, the respective ninth is their last, albeit powerful, symphony: Bruckner, Beethoven, Dvorák, Schubert, and the list goes on. (Apparently, Romantic composers are particularly susceptible to this problem.)

This terrible curse was first identified by Gustav Mahler, so it seems appropriate that British electronic musician Matthew Herbert has decided to complete Mahler’s unfinished tenth symphony for Deutsche Grammophon‘s ReComposed series. Mahler seemingly tried to sidestep the curse by writing his Das Lied von der Erde after his eighth symphony, purposefully not numbering it as number nine to avoid the significance of such a work. He later wrote and completed Symphony No. 9, a work that his friend (and father of twelve-tone music) Arnold Schoenberg hailed as a progressive work which displaced the subject and hinted at the future of classical music (that is, atonal). Mahler never heard the work performed, and died shortly thereafter while working on his tenth, unfinished, symphony.

And now, a little background for the unitiated.Prior to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Europe was still a mostly hopeful place. The peace had not yet been shattered and the masses had tremendous hope in the progress of modern science. Electricity, the phonograph, telephony, radio, advances in medicine and other technological progress signaled for many the coming of a golden age. By the time the war broke out, the avant-garde had largely turned against ‘society,” and this attitude was reflectedinmany artforms. As a figure in this narrative, Vienna’s Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was right on the cusp, and his work straddles both of these realities. This is especially true of his later work, which hinted not only at this tension, but also at the tension between life and death. Mahler’s last work was written during a very difficult time in his life, andso it uses a subject-centered approach in whichnarrative themes of death, loneliness, and personal anguish are palpable.

Mahler spent much of his professional life concentrating on conducting, and was highly regarded during his lifetime for his productions of operas; however, his renown as a composer has mostly been a posthumous occurrence. Moreover, because it remained unfinished, Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 was not performed in any meaningful sense until even later.

What is a symphony? Most symphonies have four movements, usually beginning with a sonata form, though neither of these is a requirement. Mahler, for instance, commonly wrote symphonies in five movements, as is the case with his last. As an example from the other extreme, Sibelius” last symphony (number seven) features only one movement. In short,a symphony is simply an extended piece of orchestral music, with much flexibility of form, that the composer has decided to label as such.

Deutsche Grammophon is one of the most important labels in classical music, having recorded masterpieces by master composers, performed by the very best musicians and conductors in the world. In continuous operation since 1898, it is also one of the oldest record labels in existence. Like all other record labels, particularly those with impressive and culturally significant archives, and especially those specializing in classical music, Deutsche Grammophon has been fighting to stay relevant and attract new audiences.

This is the latest release in the DG ReComposed series, which takes its inspiration from the successful Verve Remixed series, in which classics from the jazz label’s catalog were remixed by contemporary musicians and producers. It seems that DG may have been more inspired by Verve‘s success than by its main idea, or perhaps jazz is just more easily reworked than classical. Regardless, one can almost imagine the corporate groupthink that went on in the boardroom when this project was hatched, especially given the fact that most classical remix attempts are resounding failures.

The series began in 2006 with remixes by the somewhat obscureGerman producer Matthias Arfmann, known locally for his electronic-dub. He chose an odd selection of composers, pairing Steve Reich with Dvorák, offering reggae and hip-hop inspired remixes. While I can’t speak to that release’s merits,DG doesn’t seem to have marketed the series very well, because four years have gone by and we are just now seeing a third volume. As in Verve‘s jazz series, the labelsimultaneously releases a disc with the original source material. The obvious rationale is that new listeners should want to be exposed to the original after having their interest piqued by the remix, which of course is less-authentic and significant than the “original,” or so one would imagine classical music executives thinking. It’s surely not a coincidence that the label has just recently released new recordings of Mahler conducted by Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor and composer perhaps best known as musical director for the New York Philharmonic. Oh, and Bernstein also wrote a little musical called West Side Story that you may have heard of – clearly more evidence that DG sees the series as a way to encourage the youth to buy more classical records and build a new audience for such important music.

Despite the apparent misstep of the series’ first volume, ReComposed hits its mark with Symphony X. I don’t know if the credit should go to Matthew Herbert or to the personat DG who had the foresight to recruit him. Since Mahler died with his tenth symphony unfinished,Herbert’s choice at first seems somewhat strange and borderline heretical. In retrospect, an unfinished piece is absolutely the perfect piece to receive the remix treatment.Herbert’s personal style is well suited to such a task, as he doesn’t attempt to fit the work into the confines of a modern genre. Context is at the very heart of Herbert’s work, and that subtlety is (for the most part) respectful of the dignity of the original.An unfinished work is flexible enough for such experimentation, its contours vague enough and the works narrative full of enough ambiguity that both voices find satisfying expression without seeming contrived. A symphonypresents its own unique challenges, as a reinterpretation must whittle down such a long work to manageable pieces, either short excerpts or a movement, either of which fails to represent the work of art in its entirety, therefore compromising the narrative and the artistic statement. Herbert’s answer also deals appropriately with this hurdle.

Herbertchooses to work onlywiththe first movement of the five movement work, the Andante-Adagio. This movement featuresa slow, walking pace tempo and an oft-repeatingviola melody. The specific recording Mahler uses was performed in London in 1987 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, with Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting. The first movement is an excellent choice, as it is melodically linked to the ninth symphony, and its slow pace allows for Herbert’s subtle touch and contextualization to flourish. Plus, at under forty minutes, it is a manageable length.

Herbert’s own work relies on sampling, recordingandmanipulating sounds. He uses context and juxtaposition to create emotional resonance rather than relying on conventional means such as rhythm and melody.Much of his work plays with chance and is influenced by the musique concrète style of sound collage, as is evident on his best-known album, 2006’s Scale. Herbert’s take is necessarily subtle, as his technique involves playing with the context of a sample and manipulating it in an attempt to aid the narrative. Luckily, in this case, he has excellent raw material to play with. As he explains in an accompanying video, much of his contributionconsisted of recording the earlier version of the record in locations linked to Mahler and the theme of death. At first, this struck me as conceptually interesting, though I was afraid that the aural effect would be negligible. This turned out not to be true,as Herbert is a diligent and respectful producer.

After re-recording the source material in various relevant locations,Herbert edited and manipulated the result into a coherent original work. In one instance, Herbert fitted a coffin with a car stereo, closed the lid, and then recorded sections of the piece. Healso visited Mahler’s grave in Vienna, where he recorded Patrick Pulsinger performing a viola solo above Mahler’s final resting place. Here, one can hear bird song in the background; other, less obvious background noises abound throughout the record. Herbert also traveled to a crematorium, where he recorded the Adagio from behind the curtain. Morbid, yes, but more than fitting. Herbert’s interpretation focuses “on the close proximity of the banal and the profound in Mahler’s work, the constant friction between life and death, love and confusion, grandeur and mortality.”

ReComposed: Mahler Symphony X is not without its flaws, though I admit that perhaps even these have grown on me as fitting, considering the theme of the work. The seventh track goes a bit wonkers towards the end, drawing direct attention to Herbert’s reinvention in a way that lacks his trademarksubtlety. As the horns” natural pulse cries out in the background, their tone gradually overtakes the entire sonic space until it oscillates wildly, sounding more like typical electronic music, but in a carnivalesque sort of way. A galloping rhythm is introduced, butafter fifty seconds this fades away; the familiar melody returns and the piece is restored, largely unaffected, save a quiet background bleep.

THE CURSE OF THE NINTH, according to Mahler’s friend Schoenberg, resulted from the composer being too close to the other side of death. This is appropriate, as the theme of Mahler’s tenth is one of loneliness, anguish and death. After having overcome many obstacles in life, Mahler became tortured when he discovered that his youngAlma was having an affair with Walter Gropius, who would later become one of the great figures in modern architecture and the founder of the Bauhaus movement. (Later, Alma would go on to be associated with many other great intellectuals in the Germanies, which was at least partly possible because she outlived the composer by more than fifty years.) Perhaps it was this event that led Mahler to begin to write his tenth symphony, a work he clearly embraced as his last. Herbert lets this theme express itself naturally. He preserves Mahler’s geniusof conveying emotion and buildingresolving tension, and he masterfully manipulates the way we hear the sound itself.

Certainly DG deserves credit for producing such an interesting remix album within the classical realm. Mahler Symphony X introduces new listeners to a marvelous and powerful piece of composition, but it also stands on its own as a new and unique creation. I can only hope that the following releases in the series are executed with as much wisdom, and that DG is sincere in its efforts to bring new listeners to deserving classics.

Joseph Sannicandro

Deutsche Grammophon

Score: 8/10

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